Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz, Luke Arnold, Louise Barnes, Clara Paget, and Jessica Parker Kennedy
My rating: ★★★★ stars
A shocking revelation…
Black Sails was a slow-starting series. It played its secrets close to the vest. It doled out information with a medicine dropper. Often, the audience felt at sea (heh-heh), not knowing what exactly was happening and why. Especially why. For viewers who persevered, they finally got their reward, one of the best damn hours of television ever to air.
This episode is the hinge around which the first two seasons revolve. In this episode, we finally get the culmination of Captain Flint’s origin story—the reason for his obsession—but while the episode first suggests a simple, if shocking, answer, the episode is smart enough to give that reason complexity and nuance.
We have known from early in the first season that James McGrath (the future Captain Flint) and Miranda began an adulterous affair while Miranda was married to an English nobleman, and we have been told that that affair led Miranda’s husband to suicide. In season two, in flashbacks, we’re introduced to Miranda’s husband Thomas, and this episode confirms what we’ve come to suspect—that Thomas knew all along about James and Miranda’s affair and was perfectly fine with it.
However, throughout the episode, James, Miranda, and Thomas discuss obliquely some dangerous secret that has been going on in the Hamilton household, something more damaging than James and Miranda’s affair. Miranda even goes so far as to say that it represents “mortal danger,” that “men are hanged” for whatever it is that has been going on, at least, Miranda says, if their political enemies see an advantage in their being hanged.
Even at this point, I had not figured it out. Like the best mystery novels, all the clues are there and, yet, the final revelation is surprising. The response of the reader or, in this case, the viewer should be “Holy shit!…(pause)…of course.” And it is immensely satisfying when we learn that the damaging secret and the impetus behind Flint’s actions is not his affair with Miranda but, of course, his affair with Thomas.
Everything, then, makes sense. Flint and Miranda’s strange (and strained) relationship, Flint’s desire that goes far beyond madness to bring Thomas’s vision for Nassau to fruition, even the small mystery of the significance of the Marcus Aurelius book—a gift from Thomas to James.
The episode doesn’t clearly delineate the exact goings on between James, Miranda, and Thomas. Thomas certainly appears to be gay, hence Miranda’s repeated infidelities although Miranda acknowledges her love for Thomas, which now seems not to be a sexual love, but a deep friendship and admiration. We also know that Miranda and James had and continue to have a sexual relationship. But Miranda reminds James (and, in doing so, tells the viewers) that the true, all-encompassing love was between James and Thomas, and Miranda does not seem remotely jealous of that, unlike the glimpse of jealousy we got from Anne during the explicit threesome scene between Anne, Max, and Rackham that begins the episode. (I doubt it’s a coincidence that the episode opens with a scene involving a polyamorous relationship when the crux of the episode is to reveal another more important one.)
The relationship between James, Miranda, and Thomas leads to James’s ouster from the Royal Navy, Miranda and James’s exile from England, and Thomas’s commitment to Bedlam, something he agreed to in order to ensure James and Miranda’s safety. His ultimate suicide there, thus, compounds Flint’s fury at the treatment of the three of them. “Fury” seems too tame a word; hurricanes are calmer and less destructive than Flint’s rage, something Miranda points out in the episode. She tells him that his behavior goes far beyond any rational reaction and speculates that what drives Flint is not just anger at the loss of their happiness and the death of Thomas, but a deep, caustic shame at his own homosexuality.
Near the end of the episode, she leaves Flint in the churning waters of his own emotions to ruminate on the past. It is a moment at outwardly calm and inwardly turbulent. The scene is interrupted by a sudden burst of violence in the form of Vane, leaping on Flint and wrestling him to the ground. Since the beginning of the series, Vane has represented the chaos inside Flint, the disorderly violence that he refuses to recognize within himself. Here, it seems that Flint’s inner turmoil in reflecting on the past has come alive. Also, it’s simply a shock for the audience when a moment of quiet reflection erupts into violence.
The episode has other things going on that are overshadowed by the revelations about Flint but are no less well crafted. Rackham is moving ahead with his plan to become captain of his own crew. He faces two obstacles. One is a winking nod to those who know their pirate history. Rackham is finicky and dissatisfied with proposed designs for his jolly roger. When someone suggests that he’s paying too much attention to minutiae, Rackham replies, “We all have the same swords out there. We all have the same guns. But great art has felled empires.” In real life, “Calico Jack” Rackham’s jolly roger, both simple and effective, is the most famous in history.
Rackham’s other obstacle is more significant. His potential crew objects to Max and Anne being his partners. The writers do a good job of breaking down Rackham’s predicament—that, while he’s presented with a choice between the women—ostensibly the crew will accept one woman as a partner but not two—he recognizes it as a test: will he choose the woman who brings assets to the endeavor (Max) or his long personal associate who’s tainted by her actions taken against her crewmates of the Ranger (Anne)? Rackham has to tell Anne that despite their longstanding association that he’s chosen Max over her. Anne’s jealous reaction earlier in the episode to Rackham and Max sharing a moment during their bedroom activities (despite Anne’s being the one who wanted to add Max to her relationship with Rackham) foreshadows this more serious rupture.
If I wanted to be as finicky in my criticisms of the show as Rackham is with his flag design, I would say that, while both poly relationship stories work on their own, having two poly relationships in a show with a small canvas seems a bit much.
Two other stories are visited in this episode. We see Eleanor struggle with her father over the direction of the business and Silver contend with the recently returned Billy. Each interaction moves along important storylines if not leading to major incidents in the episode itself. What is good about these scenes is that the storyline is moved through conflict. The characters have to struggle with each other to get the story from point A to point B. That’s just good writing.
The performances to watch in this episode, however, are those of Toby Stephens and Louise Barnes. I’ve praised Stephens before, and here he gets a chance to dig into the essence of his character. But Barnes, a South African actress with few international credits, is really the standout. Miranda’s the one who explains and contextualizes the action in episode. She spends much of the episode as an impotent Cassandra, imploring James/Flint and Thomas to listen to her. The delivery could be strident, but Barnes knows how far she can take it without becoming hammy. What’s particularly good about her performance in this episode is that the structure of the episode, with the revelation at the end, requires Mirande to speak coyly and indirectly to characters who know exactly what she’s talking about and thus don’t require coyness or indirectness, yet Barnes makes this way of speaking seem natural and not just a device by the writers to delay the ultimate revelation of the secret.